Elaine Showalter Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Elaine Showalter 1941-

American critic, nonfiction writer, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Showalter's career through 2003.

One of America's foremost academic literary scholars, Showalter is renowned for her pioneering feminist studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century female authors and her provocative cultural analysis of women's oppression in the history of psychiatry. In her influential book A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977), Showalter advanced a new form of feminist literary theory under the term “gynocriticism,” offering an alternative framework for the interpretation of women's literary history. Likewise, in works such as The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (1985) and Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (1997), Showalter forged the branch of feminist criticism known as “hystory,” an attempt to reinterpret and redefine the pejorative notion of women's hysteria as embodied in literary and social history. Showalter's contributions to feminist criticism and women's studies have helped influence the canon of British and American literature, bringing new visibility and legitimacy to often forgotten or under-appreciated female authors.

Biographical Information

Showalter was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1941 to parents Paul Cottler and Violet Rottenberg Cottler. Though he never finished grammar school, Showalter's immigrant father was a successful wool merchant. Showalter's mother completed high school but remained at home in the role of housewife. Showalter chose to attend Bryn Mawr College against the wishes of her parents who both disapproved of their daughter's intellectual leanings and educational ambitions. Nonetheless, Showalter completed her bachelor's degree in English at Bryn Mawr in 1962 and subsequently pursued graduate studies in English at Brandeis University. Her parents also objected to her engagement to English Showalter, a French scholar, who was not Jewish. When Showalter began her graduate work at Brandeis, her parents stopped supporting her financially, and after she married Showalter in 1963, they disowned her. Showalter completed her master's degree in English at Brandeis in 1964 and embarked upon her doctoral studies at the University of California at Davis, where her husband had taken a teaching appointment in the French department. In 1970, after starting a family and moving to Princeton University, where her husband had accepted a faculty position, Showalter received her doctorate in English from UC Davis and was hired as an assistant professor at Douglass College of Rutgers University in New Jersey. In the late 1960s, she became active in the new women's movement and served as president of the Princeton chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1969. Her involvement in NOW brought her into contact with other emerging feminist leaders, most notably feminist literary scholar Kate Millett and feminist art historian Linda Nochlin. During this early period of activism, Showalter edited Women's Liberation and Literature (1971) and published A Literature of Their Own, her first major work of literary scholarship. While at Douglass, she moved from assistant professor to associate professor in 1974, and became a full professor of English in 1983. She also served as a visiting professor of English and women's studies at the University of Delaware between 1976 and 1977. During this period, she received several important fellowships, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1977 and a Rockefeller humanities fellowship in 1981. In 1984 Showalter left Douglass for Princeton University, where she accepted a position as a professor of English and was later named the Avalon Professor of Humanities. She has worked as an editor for several feminist scholarly journals and publishers, including Women's Studies, Signs, the Feminist Press, and Virago Press. A member of the Modern Language Association (MLA), Showalter served on its Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession from 1971 to 1972 and as the organization's president from 1998 to 1999. Showalter has also worked as a freelance journalist in both the print and broadcast media.

Major Works

Among the founding scholars of feminist literary criticism and women's studies in America, Showalter broke new ground in the 1970s by creating a progressive literary theory known as “gynocriticism.” Unlike traditional literary criticism, gynocriticism focused on the “history, themes, genres, and structures of literature by women,” seeking to create a method of analyzing literature written by women and to develop models of interpretation based on female experience, rather than adapting male interpretive theories and models. Putting her theory into practice, Showalter edited the anthology Women's Liberation and Literature, consisting of excerpts from works considered essential to feminist literary study, such as Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. In A Literature of Their Own, a revision and elaboration of her doctoral dissertation, Showalter rebukes the unfair critical standards applied to the work of English women writers in the nineteenth century and contends that, as a result, female artists paid a terrible price for their creative work in terms of guilt, self-loathing, and frustrated effort. Showalter divides the evolution of women's writing into three phases—“feminine,” from 1840 to the death of George Eliot in 1880; “feminist,” from 1880 to 1920, the date of female suffrage in America; and “female,” from 1920 to the present. Between 1975 and 1981, Showalter published three essays in academic journals that, taken together with A Literature of Their Own, form the foundation of her literary critical outlook and have become major tenets of American feminist literary criticism. The first, “Literary Criticism” (1975), published in the journal Signs, discusses two approaches to feminist criticism—feminist critique, which examines the anti-female biases of traditional readings and literary canons; and feminist reevaluation of women writers considered to be minor figures, as they represent the idea of a historical female subculture. Showalter's next seminal essay, “Toward a Feminist Poetics,” was originally published in Mary Jacobus's anthology Women Writing and Writing about Women (1979). In this piece, Showalter introduced the term “gynocritics” and demonstrated its efficacy with a feminist critique of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge and its male-centered critical interpretations. In the third essay, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness” (1981), originally published in the journal Critical Inquiry, Showalter used the female cultural analysis developed by Oxford anthropologists Shirley and Edwin Ardner to argue that women form a muted group within the dominant male culture, a group whose reality and culture overlap with those of the dominant culture, but is not contained within it. She further maintained that women's writing constitutes a “double-voiced discourse that always embodies the social, literary, and cultural heritages of both the muted and the dominant.”

As editor of The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (1985), Showalter brought together one of the most comprehensive collections of feminist literary theory and criticism to date, including examples of French feminism, gynocriticism, and African-American and lesbian feminist criticism. Showalter subsequently published Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing (1991), a critical counterpart to A Literature of Their Own, in which she traces the development of American women's writing through a wide-ranging literary survey and close studies of Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, and various gothic forms of women's writing from the 1960s. In the mid-1980s, Showalter extended her critical outlook from literary criticism to cultural history, focusing on embedded conceptions of mental health and the expression of sexual issues in terms of gender. In The Female Malady, a study of the sexual politics of British psychiatric history, Showalter argued that a feminization of madness occurred in the nineteenth century, and that women became the primary recipients of psychiatric treatment, serving as the cultural exemplars of insanity. She further maintained that until the late 1970s, psychiatry treated women in the confining context of “femininity,” which was largely responsible for their psychological demoralization. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle (1990) presents a literary and cultural analysis of the corresponding millennial crises of the 1890s and the 1990s, particularly as evident in the anxiety wrought by female sexual liberation and the corresponding scourges of syphilis and AIDS, and expressed in homoerotic elements of male adventure fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson and Rider Haggard, and late-twentieth-century films. Showalter returned to the subject of mental health in Hystories, in which she examines a variety of mysterious afflictions that emerged during the 1980s and 1990s, including chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, alien abductions, and recovered memories of sexual abuse. Turning a skeptical eye to these ambiguous epidemics, Showalter asserts that all are psychosomatic conditions that reflect a proliferation of mass hysteria, amplified by widespread communication media and millennial anxiety. Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage (2000) presents a survey of various “feminist icons,” a broad label that Showalter affixes to intellectuals such as Wollstonecraft, Fuller, Eleanor Marx, and Simone de Beauvoir as well as contemporary celebrity figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Diana, Princess of Wales. Showalter has also edited Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle (1993), an anthology of women's writings from the late-nineteenth century, and Scribbling Women: Short Stories by Nineteenth-Century American Women (1997), a collection of short stories by nineteenth-century American women, both of which seek to introduce readers to the work of previously obscure or underrated female authors.

Critical Reception

Showalter has been widely appreciated by critics for her prodigious knowledge, insightful analysis, and accessible prose. Most feminist literary scholars have lauded her achievement in helping to legitimize and further develop feminist critique, particularly by reevaluating the social and historical context within which women's writing is studied. However, some critics have contended that Showalter's reach often exceeds her grasp, faulting her for raising provocative questions and presenting a wealth of material without analyzing it, or trying unsuccessfully to force-fit her usually expansive subject matter into a rigid critical context. Others have criticized Showalter for omitting or glossing over women writers who do not fit neatly into her thesis or analytical construct. In addition, some reviewers have objected to Showalter's literary biases, especially in regards to the Victorian era, and her dubious psychoanalytic assumptions. Showalter's works of cultural history, particularly The Female Malady and Sexual Anarchy, have received mixed reviews, but have been generally praised for their broad, interdisciplinary approach to literary, cultural, and social trends. Showalter's feminist history of psychiatry in The Female Malady has been commended for raising disturbing and important questions about the politics of interpretation and the power of gender as a determining factor in psychiatric treatment. Her focus on the psychiatric patient—rather than the history of the psychiatric profession—has also been viewed as a valuable contribution to the subject. However, some reviewers have faulted Showalter for her selective use of data and statistics, and her imprecise use of key terms, such as “hysteria.” In later works such as Hystories and Inventing Herself, critics have hailed Showalter's impressive synthesis of evidence, though some have found her arguments less substantial and convincing than in previous works. Despite such shortcomings, Showalter has been highly regarded for calling attention to complex issues surrounding gender and sexual politics. Many of her works, most notably A Literature of Their Own and The Female Malady, have endured as staples of feminist literary criticism in university curricula.